One of my favorite destinations, Yucatan is a place I can visit multiple times a year. Which we did this time, returning after only a few months. We were there in the spring of 2017, and we set off for the same destination once again, on New Year’s Eve.
Air Travel on the Day of New Year’s Eve
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we set off to the airport on the morning of New Year’s Eve. It was my birthday, and it was the second year that I spent half my birthday traveling.
Last year we were driving back from a short trip, but this time we were flying away for a week. I’ve never been on a plane on a Holiday. We try to avoid it, when we can. However, this time it just worked out with our “free” tickets. We travel on points many times, since we do have frequent flier miles and credit cards that add flying points from purchases.
The airport was almost deserted. Getting through security was a breeze, and the flight itself was one of the most pleasant I have experienced in a long time. The plane was half empty.
Since they had no stress that comes with crowded planes, too many different people to please, the stewardesses were at their most pleasant. We could sit wherever we wanted, taken a whole row if we felt like it. When we commented on how we’ve never been on a plane so empty, and didn’t expect to be on one on a Holiday, the stewardess commented,
“Yes, because everyone thinks they don’t want to travel on New Year’s Eve. You should not think like everyone.”
We landed on time, got our rental car, and by dinnertime, we were in Puerto Morelos, where I did make a reservation in a hotel, knowing that it might get booked. We rarely make reservations, but this time I was glad I did. It was the only way we got a room. Though we could’ve slept on the beach, the weather was perfect, and there are no bugs by the ocean.
New Year’s Eve in Puerto Morelos
Once we got our room, we set off for dinner. Our favorite restaurant, on the beach, was more crowded than I ever saw it, and they was closing for the night.
We stopped at one of the other ones we knew from the old days. It was half-empty.
“Do you have reservations?”, asked the greeter. We didn’t, so we couldn’t stay.
The same thing happened in two other restaurants.
We finally decided that we would eat some street food or a cliff bar for New Year’s Eve dinner. But we walked around some more, off the main square. We didn’t hope for much, all the restaurants that lined the streets were full.
Still, we stopped and asked if they had a table available at another one of the smaller restaurants we ate at in the past. Yes, they did, if we gave them a minute to set it up. They moved a few chairs, and tables around, then invited us to sit.
Someone at a neighboring table tried to order two different things they didn’t have. We looked at each other and smiled. “Here we go again.” When our waiter got there, we asked,
“What do you have on the menu?”
“Almost everything”, he answered. “Except coconut shrimp and any chicken.”
We still had a few choices. They did have fish, and that’s what I cared about. We were in a fishing village on the sea, after all.
The New Year’s celebration at midnight was subdued. We watched kids lined up in front of a piñata in the shape of a person with 2017 written on it. They took turns hitting it, until it opened. We weren’t close enough to see, but I think they had to break free the New Year, 2018.
A Week of Exploring Old and New Places on the Peninsula
We stopped at Xel-Ha Ruins, though I feel like I know every structure, every stone and tree there. It was the Mayan site I have ever seen, and as such, it will always have a special place in my hearth. We spent a few hours there, before moving on to our next destination.
We always stop at Muyil (Chunyaxche), no matter how busy it gets (and it is still not too bad, once we pass Tulum). The combination of great structures and a jungle walk makes it a treat.
It was dinnertime when we arrived to Siiyil Noh-Ha. After settling in our hut, we climbed the Mirador – Lookout Tower – and enjoyed the view of the jungle canopy around us.
“We only have shrimp ceviche tonight”, our host told us, when we sat down for dinner. I never had it before, and wasn’t sure what to expect, but didn’t have a choice. We ordered one to share and I found my new favorite Yucatecan food.
After two days in the middle of nowhere, with very limited phone and no internet service, we drove to Coba. Two days exploring the ruins and the the town was perfect, while we tried to figure out what we would want to do next.
We found a great deal in a hotel we knew, so we returned to Chichen Itza. I know, I did say that I was done with the place, but it ended up being much more pleasant than I expected. That is because we only used it for a base, to explore the back roads, the small towns, little-known ruins, places that we haven’t seen yet. Yes, we still found some of those, close to the well-known and busy Wonder of the World.
Another Great Trip to Yucatan
By the time we were ready to get home, we felt that we did a lot, once again. We didn’t swim much, except one day, since it was actually cold in Yucatan. Relatively cold, meaning very pleasant for hiking and climbing pyramids.
We explored sites we didn’t know existed. Small sites, but still impressive, where we were the only visitors.
We met volunteers who were cleaning another site. We talked to a Mayan who told us stories about the Caste War, the site and working with a renowned archaeologist I admire. I bought a beautiful huipil-like shirt made by his wife I met.
We climbed cleared pyramids, and one that only has a trail leading up to the top, and is still covered by vegetation.
We walked through the jungle and explored a colonial town we have never been in, where no one spoke English.
I have been climbing Mayan pyramids, visiting ancient sites in the Yucatan peninsula with my family for over two decades. We have seen a lot of changes during this time in most of the sites. When we first visited, the Mayan Riviera didn’t exist, as it is now. A narrow road let from Cancun down the coast, where most of the traffic we encountered was Mayan workers on their bicycles.
While twenty years ago we could climb every structure even in the most popular sites like Tulum, and in Chichen Itza, now it is impossible to do so in both sites.
Over time, we have learned to venture deeper into the jungles of Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche, in search of lesser-known pyramids to explore.
Ancient Mayan sites are scattered all over the peninsula. Some are still covered by the surrounding jungle. They are off the beaten track, where you won’t find tourists. You just need to know where to look.
Climbing Pyramids in Lesser-Known Sites
Our last trip took us to Chacchoben, Kinichna, and Dzibilchaltun. We only shared the jungle and the ruins with spider monkeys, iguanas and birds of all colors and shapes.
Calakmul is one of the most impressive and well-known sites on the Yucatan peninsula. But it is so remote that most tourists don’t bother driving to it. Located in a nature preserve with the same name, at the end of a 60 km long narrow, dirt road, it is still a challenge to reach. Big tour buses from Cancun can’t make it through. And most tourists don’t bother to drive so far from the resorts. Most of the people we met on the trails were birdwatchers, and hardy travelers.
The two major pyramids at Calakmul are tall enough to see the surrounding jungle canopy and other structures from. We could climb them and feel on top of the world, eye level with the birds.
Howler and spider monkeys, tropical birds, iguanas and ocellated turkeys kept us company.
Not far from Calakmul, in the ruins of Balam-ku, we saw the most beautiful and well preserved Mayan murals. We were the only visitors there. The caretaker was kind enough to unlock the door that lead inside the pyramid where the murals are. She also told us that underneath they have found an ancient tomb. As we were walking around the other structures, only iguanas kept us company.
Staying off the Beaten Track
As we prepare to return to Yucatan after the Holidays, we are looking for more treasures that are not overrun by tourists. it is getting more and more difficult, but not impossible. One of our favorite spots is so remote, we can only get to it on a dirt road, and we only encountered locals there. Mayans, who speak Spanish as a second language. In some ways it is easier to communicate with them. Since they speak slower, I can understand better. It also helps to pick up a few words in Maya. Not that I could communicate with them in their own language, though I wish I could. But it makes us all feel better when we try.
There are no pyramids very close to this place, that I know of, but we might find something new, unexpected. Yucatan tends to offer something new every time we visit.
The best-known Mayan pyramids are so popular that they are hard to enjoy due to the crowds they attract. But the jungle still has plenty of hidden treasures. If you know where to look, you can still find solitude and adventure, even on the Riviera Maya.
Chichen Itzá is probably the best-known and the most spectacular ancient Mayan site. It is not only a World Heritage site but also one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. Architectural wonders, of course.
Over the years we visited the site often. While we always noticed changes, our latest trip, seven years after our last, took us by surprise.
We Notice the Changes As Soon As We Return
Once upon a time, it was possible to visit the site without the crowds that it attracts today. I remember climbing the Pyramid of Kukulcan, walking through its temple, and taking a tour inside of it. We climbed the Temple of the Warriors and even sat on its jaguar throne. No one stopped us, all the visitors did it. Only a handful of us drove to the site anyway. We climbed the Observatory or Caracol and walked through its rooms. I remember with nostalgia watching our kids play in the enormous ball court, and being virtually alone in it.
While we knew that we couldn’t do any of those things now, we still decided to revisit the site. Our youngest daughter was a tiny baby last time we walked through the site and she didn’t remember it. She wanted her to see this famous place.
At first I was disappointed. We stood on a long line for at least an hour to enter, even though we stayed in a hotel basically on the premises. As soon as it opened, the crowds were unbelievable. Vendors lined up the trails, calling to us as we passed by, offering tourist junk made in China. Yes, it was annoying.
“Call something Paradise, kiss it goodbye” – in this case, call it a “wonder of the world”. So true. However, we are trying to preserve these wonders for future generations. So I understand and even agree that no one is allowed to climb or even touch the monuments. When they get thousands of visitors a day, it is the only way to keep them from getting destroyed.
A Walk through the Ancient City
Once passed the shock of the changes, we managed to have a wonderful time.
How could we not? The structures are all spectacular, even more so than we remember them. More of the facades are restored and the paint in some of the rooms looks more vivid from outside.
We didn’t have a lot to walk, most of the trails we used to walk on are closed, and to look to the structures takes less time than to climb them. While I missed the old trails, it was nice to take it easy and be able to leave by noon.
Our first stop was the Sacred Cenote, where legend has it that virgins were sacrificed. I’m not so sure the legend is true though. Some of the early archaeologists searched the cenote and found lots of offerings. Not necessarily human ones though.
Thousands of beautiful artifacts found their tomb in the bottom of the cenote. Of course they found human remains as well, but not enough to prove the idea that they were sacrificed. It is quite possible that people fell into it by accident, either in the ancient times or much later. The edge is very steep, I remember worrying about my own kids a lifetime ago when we used to visit. It is not possible now to get close to the edge, so no danger of that kind lurks around it. The remains of the ancient temple sit on the edge of the cenote.
Walking through a Line of Vendors
Walking back towards the main plaza, we watched the vendors set up their fare. We walked fast past them, avoiding eye contact. We didn’t want to hear their offering of things that we were not interested in buying. I have trouble saying no to anything, and they seem to know it.
Though we entered the ruins as soon as they opened, by the time we were in front of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, the crowds have already descended on the plaza. Fortunately, it is a large enough area that we could enjoy the monuments if we lingered a few minutes in front of each.
The Ball Court, Temple of the Warriors and Caracol
The Ball Court is the largest in Mesoamerica. As I walked through it, I heard the familiar yells and hoots of the tour guides, demonstrating the acoustics of the place. It still makes me smile. The Maya figured out how to build an outdoor monument with perfect acoustics. If a person talks on one end, his voice is audible and sounds clear on the other side. It rivals the best opera houses of the modern world. And it is outdoors.
The Temple of the Warriors sits as magnificent as ever, though we couldn’t get too close to it. The Mercado with its hundreds of columns is off limits, as well. It is still beautiful to look at from the trail that goes around it.
We walked to the Observatory or Caracol and to the structures around it. As we shared the plaza with hundreds of tourists, people watching became part of the game. The Observatory is spectacular from the outside as well.
Looking at it makes me think of the ancient Maya watching the sky, night after night. Based solely on their observations alone, without the aid of modern telescopes, they understood the movements of the planets, the moon, and the stars. They were even able to predict eclipses, both lunar and solar. They based their calendars on the movements of these celestial bodies they watched from structures like this one.
The Pyramid of Kukulcan
Still, the greatest structure in Chichen Itzá remains the famous pyramid. I am lucky to have climbed it once upon a time and even walked inside it. But even looking at it from outside it is spectacular.
It sits in the middle of an open plaza, dominating the center of the site. Stairways lead to the top on all four of its sides, but the most spectacular one is the one facing north. It is the only one where two huge serpent heads adorn the bottom of the stairs. These are the representations of the mythical great serpent-god, Kukulcan. Hence the name.
During both spring and autumn equinoxes, at sunset, the whole serpent is visible, descending the stairs of the pyramid. How did they know to face the building in this way?
A few years ago we ended up in Chichen Itzá soon after the spring equinox. Though it was about a week later, we were still able to see the shadow of the mythical serpent descending the stairs of the pyramid.
In addition, the number of stairs on the four sides of the pyramid equals the number of days in a year. Each side has 91 steps (91×4=364), and one extra step on the top leads into the temple.
Leaving Chichen Itzá
We knew that it was probably the last time we would visit this amazing site. We’ve seen it many times, we have explored it, we have even seen the great serpent Kukulcan, descending the stairs a few years ago. We happened to be there about a week after the equinox. At the right time, it was still visible. We have seen the night show, where they reenact the great serpent descending, with artificial lights, as they tell stories from the ancient city. The show is spectacular, especially if you understand Spanish. You can listen to it in English as well, with headphones, but this version is never quite as vivid.
If it is your first time, it is worth the time and effort. Try to get there early though and remember that you need to deal with crowds. Sort of like Disneyland. If you don’t let the crowds and the heat (during the day) get to you, you’ll have an amazing experience.
Uxmal is one of my favorite ancient Maya cities in the state of Yucatan. Over the past twenty-five years, my family and I visited it often. No matter how many times we see it, we don’t mind coming back to it over and over.
Revisiting the Ancient City of Uxmal
We were some of the first visitors of the day to the ancient Maya site of Uxmal. We enjoyed the cool breeze when we started walking, since we knew that later it would be hot and sticky. In the hills of Yucatan a breeze is a rare commodity and the humidity is high enough to make the heat unbearable.
Like every time we find ourselves in the region, we got up early to arrive to the site when it opened. Once again, we managed to beat the crowds that show up late morning in the tour buses from Cancun.
The loud chatter of thousands of birds wakes me up in the morning. As I slowly return to reality I realize that I slept in a Mayan hut, with no windows, only screens to keep the bugs out. We are in Calakmul Nature Preserve, in Campeche, Mexico.
When we first arrived, we noticed a family of howler monkeys up in the trees above the huts. One of the Mayan guys working there smiled and told us in broken English that ten individuals make up this family. They have lived in the trees within the hotel boundaries for years.
The hotel Puerta Calakmul seems more of a village with individual huts, each with a short path leading to it. We’ve stayed there in the past and always had a great experience. It is one of the best places where we have seen a lot of wildlife, and experienced life in the jungle.
Exploring the Preserve in the Ruins of Calakmul
In the early morning we take off on the sixty-mile dirt road that leads to the ancient site and the trails. The road is so narrow, two cars can barely fit through and the canopy encompasses it. We are driving in a tunnel of green. We keep it slow in the hopes to see wild animals close to the road. Iguanas are sitting in the middle of the road every so often, basking in the sun. It is hard to make them move, at times we stop altogether until they take their time to walk off. We spot a few ocellated turkeys, their colorful plumage bright against the surrounding green. Later on, we even spot a peccary wandering close to the road.
On the trail, we try to walk without making too much noise or talking. Birds chatter, insects buzz, and lizards run around in the dried leaves under our feet. The jungle is full of life even when it seems quiet.
We catch up with a group of local birdwatchers. One of them offers her binoculars to our daughter and points out a bird for her to look at. Soon we all take turns with her binoculars. We follow her directions and notice a tiny bird that looks like a toucan, only much smaller. She is colorful and her yellow beak is huge compared to her body. Soon I spot a few more close by in the canopy. We learn that they are called toucanitos, or little toucans. There are a few of them together, we find out as we watch them for a few minutes.
As we make our way through the ancient structures, we see a family of spider monkeys on the top of the trees. They seem to be resting, some of them sleeping with their long limbs dropping on the sides of a branch.
We spend all day on walking on the trail, and climbing structures. We hear the distinctive call of the howler monkeys from the top of a pyramid, though they are hard to spot from that height.
Back to Our Mayan Hut
When we return to our hut, the howler family greets us. They throw sticks and half-eaten fruit at us, trying to either get our attention or chase us off. We decide they want our attention and stand under their tree for a long time, watching them. I notice a tiny baby on his mother’s back. Other young howlers also walk around the mother, while the older ones hang in trees close by.
Night in the Jungle
At night, we sleep surrounded by the music of the jungle, the sounds of crickets and insects, bats, and owls, tree frogs and lizards. Then suddenly, as soon as we fall asleep, we are awakened by the loudest growls we could imagine. For a moment I think it might be a jaguar, but I realize that it is the howler monkey family.
Someone or something woke them up and they are all howling and hooting, growling and roaring. We record their sound, it is amazing! As we listen, we start to discern the sounds of the big males, the young monkeys, the mother and even the baby. Soon they settle back to sleep, and the night is quiet once again.
Quiet is relative in the jungle. In this case it means the sound of crickets, insects, tree frogs, bats, owls, rodents, lizards moving. It is the most relaxing music to fall asleep to.
As soon as the sun’s first rays peek over the horizon, the loud chatter of thousands of birds wakes us up. As we walk out, we notice all of them, in the trees that surround us. They are big and small, colorful and plain. We even recognize the mot-mot bird, with its distinctive long tail feathers.
We set off for our next destination, one that will involve more nature preserves, both in the jungle and on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula.
What Is Calakmul?
Calakmul was an ancient Maya city, one of the greatest in its day. At the moment it is one of the few an archaeological site where you can still climb the pyramids. Sitting in the middle of the jungle, in a nature preserve, it is off the beaten track. Spending time there is an adventure in itself, especially for children, if you are traveling with them.
Since it is out of the way, at the end of a sixty-mile dirt road, the best option is to stay at the only hotel close by, La Puerta Calakmul. If you really want to rough it, there is a camping site within the preserve, but I haven’t tried it.
La Puerta Calakmul has different size rooms, all in stand-alone huts, or bungalows. No TVs in the rooms to distract you, but you do have signal if you carry a cell phone. The rooms have comfortable beds and hammocks, with modern bathrooms. Although instead of windows, you are surrounded by netting, they are very well insulated, so no mosquitoes or bugs of any kind get through. The beds have mosquito netting, just in case.
The hotel also has a restaurant, that has some of the best meals I have ever tasted. If you go to the ruins for the day, you can also buy packed lunches to bring with you, since you will most likely spend the whole day there. The pool is small, but clean and refreshing, especially after a long trek in the jungle.
How to Get There and Other Helpful Information
Cancun is the easiest airport to get to on the peninsula, and chances are, you might want to visit other sites, or spend time on the beach as well if you’re there.
Rent a car and drive towards Tulum. You might want to stop there and enjoy a day on the beach or visit the site of Tulum. Then keep going south, towards Bacalar. This is another place you might want to stop, for a beautiful lagoon, called Laguna des Siete Colores or the lagoon of seven colors. It is beautiful and worth a swim. You can find a hotel in Bacalar for any budget, right on the water if you wish. From Bacalar, you need to take the road towards Xpujil. Shortly after you pass the town of Xpujil, you’ll see the road to Calakmul.
The hotel Puerta Calakmul is on the left, off a short dirt road, right after the turn-off. You are in a nature preserve here.
When you walk in the preserve, make sure you carry enough water, and snacks. Wear good hiking or walking shoes. Wear a hat and sunscreen, and keep bug spray at hand. Remember that is hot and humid, especially during midday, so dress accordingly. Being in a nature preserve, there is no real dress code, even in the more traditional Mexico. I would just stay away from very short shorts or crop tops.